‘He was trying to address an internal conservative faction with this statement and was not aware that it would have an impact on foreign policy,’ says Daavoud Hermidas Barvand, a former Iranian diplomat at the UN. ‘He has come to realise that as president he has more responsibility and the comments of a president are not the comments of a private citizen.’

But it was the impact the comments had on Iran’s delicate nuclear negotiating position that was greatest felt. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had in September found that Iran was in breach of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and that its case fell within the ‘competence’ of the UN Security Council, meaning it was obliged to present Iran’s case to the UN at an unspecified point in the future.

The next IAEA meeting falls in late November, and until Ahmadinejad’s comments it had looked likely that Iran’s case would be quietly allowed to roll over for a further three months. There were several reasons for that approach. The new IAEA board of governors, which is rotated through UN members, now contains several more potential allies of Tehran, making it more difficult for the US and EU to ensure a vote against Iran. Diplomats in Tehran also felt that its Foreign Affairs Ministry was in such a mess that it was impossible to have any meaningful dialogue – making any new threats of action pointless. And IAEA inspectors had also been given new access to previously closed nuclear facilities at Parchin – a move that falls far short of satisfying the body but allows it to show greater leniency.

The US had reluctantly accepted the EU position that forcing the question in November would be fruitless. But now the situation has changed. Ahmadinejad’s comments provoked outraged responses not only from Israel and Washington, but also from EU countries and Iranian allies such as Russia. ‘Those who insist on transferring the Iranian nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council now have an additional argument for doing so,’ said Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. ‘What I saw on television was unacceptable.’

Clarification

Iran has backed down: Ahmadinejad clarified his remarks to suggest he only meant to support increased democratisation for Palestinians, and Tehran has told the EU it wants to start negotiating again. This itself represents a fresh attitude from the new government, which over the summer had suggested talks with the EU were pointless. However, its attempts to open talks up to include more friendly states failed and it is now re-examining the negotiations policy of the previous administration. It is a far cry from the summer months, when the efforts of the Khatami government were contemptuously dismissed.

‘The regime tried to adopt a different way in the summer, but it was not successful,’ says Barvand. ‘Now it has reverted to the previous approach but there is a deadlock because Iran wants this to happen without preconditions.’

Tehran says it will not stop work at the Isfahan uranium enrichment plant – the very issue that ended negotiations with the EU in the summer and led to the September IAEA decision. Supreme National Security Council head Ali Larijani, who is responsible for the nuclear negotiations, also responded to the danger of sanctions with bravado in early November. ‘Iran cannot be intimidated by the Security Council,’ he said. ‘We do not take such threats seriously.’

Sanctions are still only a distant prospect. Even if Iran’s case is refe